Former Utah sheriff urges action on immigration reform
Congress • In the White House, law enforcement groups say they will help push for congressional action on comprehensive bill.
Published: May 14, 2014 10:51AM
Updated: May 13, 2014 09:59PM
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President Barack Obama walks over to shake hands with law enforcement leaders from across the country after speaking to them about immigration reform, Tuesday, May 13, 2014, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is at right. (AP Photo)

Washington • Former Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard, now the executive director of the National Sheriffs Association, told President Barack Obama on Tuesday that law-enforcement officials have his back on pushing for immigration reform as long as they’re part of the discussions.

Kennard, who has led the national association since 2007, was part of a group of 40 sheriffs and police chiefs invited to meet with Obama in an ongoing effort to push Congress into action on a comprehensive immigration bill that has stalled in the House.

“So I know I’m preaching to the choir here,” Obama told the group. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t agree with us that this is [the] time for us to go ahead and get moving. But I just want all of you to know your voices, particularly over the next couple of months, are going to be critical.”

Kennard knows that well. The former sheriff, who now represents more than 3,000 elected sheriffs across the nation, says the officials hold sway in their communities and can be helpful if their issues are addressed in legislation.

“We in law enforcement believe very strongly that it’s time a comprehensive immigration-reform bill is put forward,” Kennard said after leaving the White House. The sheriffs association doesn’t agree with the Senate-passed bill — which includes a long path to citizenship for those in the country illegally — but the group does want to see action that eventually allows the estimated 12 million immigrants to seek official recognition.

“This is not only just a public-safety issue but this is an economic issue, too,” Kennard said. Immigrants are “afraid to come out and be recognized because they don’t know the consequences.… These people need to be able to feel free to be a productive member of society, to come out and be accountable and be accounted for. It’ll help us do our job better in law enforcement. It will also help the community because there’s a lot of crime that’s not being reported.”

Kennard joined officials from the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police at the meeting with Obama. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson joined the group as Obama appealed to his guests to lobby Congress on the issue.

Utah Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Squires also attended.

He said he appreciated that the White House didn’t just bring in officials who were fully behind the president’s immigration plans. Squires, who says he’ll leave the policy decisions to the elected leaders, added that it’s important the White House and Congress listen to the concerns of law enforcement as they proceed on any immigration reform agenda.

“Anything that will help the federal agencies work closer with state and local law enforcement in addressing the issues will help us all,” Squires said.

Obama says public safety is a key part of immigration reform.

“The immigration system that we have right now makes it harder, not easier, for law-enforcement agencies to do their jobs,” the president said. “It makes it harder for law enforcement to know when dangerous people cross our borders.”

Kennard, a Republican, said his association wants secure borders and recognizes the need for some pathway to legal status for immigrants. The latter has become the choke point for GOP House members who don’t want a vote on the Senate bill.

Sen. Orrin Hatch backed the legislation in the vote last year while Sen. Mike Lee opposed it. None of Utah’s house members support the pathway to citizenship included in the measure.

Kennard says something has to give, and he said law-enforcement officials will be making that point this election year.

“It needs to be moved forward,” Kennard said. “It needs to be on the front burner. It should be an election issue.”

tburr@sltrib.com